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The Smithsonian's Integrity

Museums are costly to run. But a fickle public, which has loved blockbuster exhibitions ever since King Tut, still would rather pay top dollar for sports events than a modest entrance fee to help keep a museum alive and well.

That lack of support is the essence of the conundrum facing Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small. Especially now, when attendance has been down as a result of Sept. 11.

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Mr. Small leads the effort to pay for preserving the rich heritage of the Smithsonian's museums. But some 170 scholars and activists are calling for his ouster for allowing the Smithsonian's name "to be used for donors' commercial purposes, and let donors influence both the nature and content of exhibits."

One recent donation is for a hall of achievement to tell the life stories of famous Americans. One donor mentioned some of the individuals she'd like to see included. Now it's up to the museum's secretary, and its board of regents, to uphold their best sense of just how to honor that request.

The Smithsonian receives 70 percent of its funding from the government, the rest from private sources. Already, its museums have banners crediting corporate and individual sponsors. Its treasures include the original Star Spangled Banner, restoration paid for by Polo Ralph Lauren.

The Smithsonian has made preserving its integrity a top priority. But its policies governing gifts may need some refining to prevent another case of a donor appearing to dilute or divert the institution's purpose. And donors who want to see museums in the black can be more mindful of the need to support a scholarly approach to a museum's collection and presentations. Museum officials know their needs well and only ask for money to fulfill them, not redefine them.


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